you are in the diode archives winter 2011



Review | Persons Unknown, Jake Adam York
Crab Orchard Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale

Jake Adam York’s two previous books attempt to reinvigorate the idea of “Southern Poetry” or “Southern Writing.” With a few contemporaries—most noticeably Joshua Poteat and Brian Barker—he works through tropes of Southern landscape, the meaning of the south, its legacy especially concerning race, its literary traditions (with plenty of references to Faulkner, Dave Smith, et al.), but also the place and extent of lyricism in contemporary American poetry. The guiding light for these poets is probably the late Larry Levis, whose gothic style and extreme empathy and sympathy with the downtrodden and forgotten seems to direct or influence the direction these poets head off in, on their own explorations. Certainly his elegiac, Romantic, southern-gothic poems are the closest model for these writers, and they must take in his influence, even as they work through and extend it.

York’s latest book continues his exploration of the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, and while many of the poems are rooted in historical content, and are often about figures from history who were killed because of their race, the book is also an exploration of the poetic lyric and the poetic line (especially as it relates to the sentence). What is compelling about this book is not just its relation to historical events or facts, but also the power of York’s poetic ability, and his quest to extend lyricism to an almost extreme degree.

What strikes one most is the book’s outright beauty, and the poet’s determination to render all things in a brightly lit, still, eternal poetic landscape. This is an aesthetic quality but one that plays into the content as well—in these long, present tense sentences, stories from history continue to happen. This presents a kind of rhetoric about history, the legacy of racism in America, and how the present moment is informed by these shared tragedies.

But even as a rhetoric or “point” about American history, it’s the poetry of the poems that wins out. “Shore” is a representative piece from the collection. The poem attempts to bridge history—and anonymity—by recounting the death of Aaron Lee and Joseph Thomas. The context for the piece is a bit of literal sleuthing and researching in libraries and in the “field” as it were—

in a library’s dim, old bulbs’
dirty light scumming the emulsions

oil, that chemical sprawl,
that rainbow

the dead always leave behind.

Aaron Lee, you are a forgotten mile
in New Orleans East,

an alleyway of scrapyards and boxcars
and derelict homes, trailer parks
now laced as curtains
where the flood has grazed,

a place even maps might forget.

The poem laments the typical map of American consciousness, one that could forget the lives of two men who played an important role in civil rights. The extended lyric moment begins in the detritus and material evidence of history, but goes on to imagine Aaron Lee as a place that is a barometer—like curtains stained by floodwater—of destruction and loss. It is a complex image, conflating person with a landscape, recalling natural disasters like Katrina, and conjuring, without ever having to say it, the “tides of time” and the years as a passing current. Persons Unknown is almost solely comprised of such techniques and moments.

Some of the most interesting gestures in the book come when the author/speaker places himself within these historic locales, usually as an outsider wandering through a neighborhood, getting odd looks from the residents; and often as an apparition in glass, a reflection in a car’s chrome and a restaurant’s window. The poet becomes the invisible ferryman through these landscapes—there but not there, like the ghosts and memories he describes.

The longest poem in the book, “And Ever,” alerts the reader with an epigraph that the poem will be about (or for?) Medgar Evers. More than half the poems begin with either an epigraph (e.g. “for Mack Charles Parker, lynched near Poplarville, Mississippi, April 24, 1959, recovered from the Pearl River, May 4, 1959”) or with a setting (“Selma” or “Oxford”). These epigraphs do much of the work of situating us in a narrative or landscape, and free up the poet from having to present a lot of back-story or scene-setting. “And Ever” never has to bother with the history, but can present what’s at stake in a civil rights narrative through a variety of lyric and poetic devices. The poem begins with light,

You rise
to watch the leaves

breathe light to their edges
and burn,

drawing day from night
to wake the birds.

Are we the “you,” or is Evers, or is York leaving it ambiguous so that we may more deeply identify with the historical figure? The meditation follows the element of light through several sections; it becomes the glow of a television broadcasting JFK, the beauty of a firefly, and the ominous foreboding of headlights sweeping into a driveway. The poem is intensely lyric; York releases himself from having to stay too close to the “real” story and allows for poetry to emerge. The epigraph functions as background, and the poet invents and riffs away from the literal source. The poems in Persons Unknown hope to rescue the lost stories and figures by placing them into meaningful, beautiful poetic landscapes, and to sidestep mere history writing or exposition.

Will Persons Unknown—written by a white author, about African-American history—provoke any sort of response from literary theorists or even from mainstream media, the way a book like The Confessions of Nat Turner did in the 1960’s? It seems unlikely; the poems here are almost always ultimately about poetry, about memory, about history and history making, and about telling and speech; in fact, many of the poems take up the nature of language, speaking, and sound as their content—who is speaking, who gets heard, and who is listening to the poem? They are rarely—if ever—“about” race. If they spend time recalling black history, they eulogize and lament a world of injustice and ignorance, without ever crossing some sort of line that would make a reader squirm. York’s poems are, for lack of a better word, sad. They stand before these tragedies and mourn, knowing that to tell the stories is a kind of victory or duty, but that it will never be enough to change history or humanity. As the book acknowledges, as “protest” or as “monuments” the poems are as inadequate as any monument or gravestone. But as poems they succeed in amazing ways.  

Persons Unknown


Craig Beaven recently completed a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Poems are out or forthcoming in American Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Marlboro Review, Rattle, Tar River Poetry, and Third Coast, and his reviews of poetry collections appear regularly in Blackbird. Currently, he is Senior Development Writer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.